Commercial UAV Expo

Administrator Stephen M. Dickson (August 12, 2019 - March 31, 2022)

Thank you, Lisa [Ellman]. I’m happy to be at the Commercial UAV Expo this year.

Over the past 18 months, I haven’t had a chance to get out to events like these as much as I would have liked. I know that’s true for most of you as well.

So it’s good to be here, see everyone, and see the exciting trends and innovation happening with drones.

Much of the traveling I’ve done has been between Washington, DC, and Atlanta, where my wife and I make our home. So I’m a little more plugged into the things happening there locally.

There’s research on drone package delivery happening at Georgia Tech that’s gotten some attention. They’re testing how several small drones can swarm together to carry heavier packages.

Working in tandem, the small drones can transport a package to and from a person’s home, in a safer, quieter way than a single larger drone.  

This could be a game changer. Instead of just small packages, drones could deliver virtually all packages.

And not just to a person’s house. This kind of technology has many potential applications, including resupplying troops operating in a combat zone, for example.  

That’s pretty impressive!

Georgia Tech’s research is a good example of how the drone community is on the cutting edge. And it gives us a glimpse at how drones can offer unique value to different segments of society.

And while my home is in Atlanta, my office is in Washington DC. As head of the FAA, I’m focused on establishing drone policy that ensures safe integration into the airspace system, but doesn’t stifle the great innovation that’s happening at places like Georgia Tech.

The public fully expects all aspects of aviation to be as safe as commercial airlines have become. Businesses and operators who don’t understand that are not going to be in business for long.

So how do we, the FAA, fairly and equitably integrate all of this technology into our national airspace system and do it in a safe and predictable way?

As FAA Administrator, I see policy and the accompanying regulations as a protective sphere or envelope around the aircraft. The envelope gives the operator a comfort zone within which he or she can be assured of a safe operation before reaching any edge, where safety—yours and the public’s—might not be assured.

For drone integration, we’ve done our best to allow for as much development and operational work as possible within the existing regulatory framework. But obviously we’ve had to make changes occasionally to make sure the protective envelope is as robust as it needs to be.

We’re actually at the point right now where we’re bumping up against that envelope, so there are some very important and groundbreaking performance-based rules on the horizon, especially in relation to Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations—BVLOS for short—and drone certification.

Before we talk about that, let’s first take a look at how we got here.

Policy affecting what we now refer to as “drones” started 40 years ago, when we issued Advisory Circular 91-57.

This circular outlined certain operating standards for model aircraft and encouraged voluntary compliance with safety standards.

All was quiet until 2012, when the small drone industry came alive. Suddenly, there was a need to make sure we had a protective envelope around an entirely new kind of aircraft.

Congress required the FAA to create a way to authorize these so-called “non-hobby” drone operations, and set out methods to obtain waivers or exemptions for operations. The law also created the small UAS classification for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

We followed up in 2015 with registration and marking rules and guidance for small drones. The idea was to link an operator to an aircraft.

In 2016, we published Part 107—known as the Small UAS Rule—which created the Remote Pilot Certificate that now has my signature on it. The Part 107 rule also set operational standards for commercial small drone flights.

And, fast forward to January of this year, we expanded the protective envelope with two more rules. First, we published a rule that modified Part 107 to allow routine operations over people and routine operations at night under certain circumstances.

Second, we published the remote identification rule, which has compliance dates of September 2022 for manufacturers, and September 2023 for remote pilots.

Regarding night operations, I want to emphasize that Part 107 pilots must complete the new online training course and equip with the proper anti-collision lighting.

Working with the industry, we’ve also done a great deal to make the public comfortable with the technology, particularly over the past year when drones displayed their unique value during the pandemic.

The package delivery companies, in particular, were innovative and flexible, modifying their services to deliver medications, supplies, food, personal protective equipment, vaccines, and even schoolbooks. News stories about “drones for good” helped promote public acceptance of drones.

This is all good progress for the industry. But much of this foundation has been built by issuing waivers for drone operations on a case-by-case basis.

Using waivers is not going to be sustainable for the future. If this industry is going to grow, there needs to be a standard set of rules for Beyond Visual Lines of Sight Operations. And we’re working closely with the drone community to do it right.

We will also evolve the way we certify certain drones through the MOSAIC rule, which stands for Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates.

Although MOSAIC is still in development, we envision a day when we can enable more drone operations by appropriately scaling our aircraft certification requirements according to the risk of the operation.

We won’t develop these rules in a vacuum; we need everyone at the table.

This is easier said than done. Getting us all on the same page when we make new rules is not easy. In fact, when we proposed the rule for Remote ID, we received more than 53,000 comments, and we read every one.

That shows you that the drone industry is diverse. There are many different concepts of operations, entailing different levels of safety risk. There are competing interests, all of whom are looking at things from their own vantage point, and vying for the FAA’s attention.

At the end of the day, not everyone will get exactly what they want, but we try to find solutions that, hopefully, everyone will agree are best for the industry as a whole and support our unwavering commitment to aviation safety.

This is the approach we’re taking to create policy for routine Beyond Visual Line of Sight Operations. In June, we stood up an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, or ARC. We selected 90 members who started working immediately.

This committee is looking closely at the safety, security, and environmental needs, as well as societal benefits, of these operations.

Getting 90 people from the drone community all with different interests and asking them to come to a consensus is not an easy task. Especially in the six-month time frame we gave them.

But this group is up to the task. I want to recognize the committee’s industry co-chairs for their leadership: Eileen Lockhart from Xcel Energy, and Sean Cassidy from Amazon Prime Air.

Later this year, we will receive the committee’s final recommendations, which will help us draft a rule for BVLOS. That should result in more predictability for drone manufacturers and operators, which in turn will pave the way for routine package delivery, infrastructure inspection, and other more complex drone operations beyond the visual line-of-sight of the remote pilot.

We’re also investing in research and partner programs like BEYOND, which will help us create performance-based, technology-agnostic rules.

BEYOND picks up where the Integration Pilot Program – or IPP – left off. We’re working with eight of the nine IPP participants and some new partners over the next 3-4 years to advance and expand the scope of repeatable and scalable BVLOS operations under today’s rules.

There’s a great deal of additional research underway through our government, industry, academic, and international partners. Topics of high interest and ongoing work include passenger transport capabilities like Urban Air Mobility.

Were also studying the risks of drones, including ground and airborne collision severity studies, engine ingestion testing, and UAS detection, which we are testing at five airports over the next two years.

As you know, the FAA is not only a regulator, but we’re also an air navigation services provider; so of course we’re heavily invested in making sure the drone ecosystem will fit hand-in-glove with our air traffic control system.

Our answer is UAS Traffic Management, or UTM, as we call it. It’s the foundational capability needed to unlock the full potential of this sector. Based on the collaborative work we’ve done with NASA, we’re planning a regulatory framework that will allow airspace users to cooperatively manage their operations where the FAA does not actively provide separation services.

Were also continuing to work with our global partners to develop a UTM architecture. BUT, we ultimately want YOU, industry, to take ownership. And when I see all the amazing innovation from private industry shaping the aerospace industry right now, I’m confident that UTM will be no different.

When you envision the types of aircraft moving through the skies under UTM, you not only think of Beyond Visual Line of Sight cargo delivery flights, but you naturally think about flying taxis, or more broadly speaking, Advanced Air Mobility, or AAM. We’ve all seen the prototypes, and it’s hard not to be excited by what we see.

As I noted earlier, my role as FAA Administrator is to figure out how to support these emerging technologies while maintaining the unwavering safety commitment that the public has come to expect from the FAA. Finding this balance is especially challenging because AAM crosses so many domains—regulations, infrastructure, technology, operations, and societal perceptions.

The FAA is taking a systems approach, including the establishment of an internal AAM Integration Executive Council to coordinate all activities in five areas—aircraft, airspace, operations, infrastructure, and community.

Were also working with NASA on the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign, which is designed to help develop certification standards while promoting public confidence and education in the technology.

All of us—government, industry, and the public —have a role to play as we develop consensus standards and a comprehensive risk picture of how and where AAM will operate.

We have several AAM aircraft in the aircraft certification process right now, and several companies anticipate flying initial AAM operations around 2024. The FAA has no current plans to update regulations for AAM operations—the existing rules are flexible enough to accommodate any potential near-term operations.

So we have many efforts underway to ensure the safe certification and integration of drones.

But if this industry is going to succeed, public acceptance will also be essential.  

People have been reluctant about drones for a variety of reasons, including concerns about privacy, safety, and security. And sometimes people have reacted negatively. Last month, there was a report about a state official shooting a drone out of the sky. Things like that can’t happen. 

This industry should take the lead toward encouraging public acceptance. If people see that drones are uniquely beneficial to them – say, for an elderly parent who can get groceries or medicine delivered, or for communities who can replant forests and combat fight wildfires – then they’re more likely to accept them.

And drones continue to be used in innovative ways to fight the pandemic. UPS has recently started delivering COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina. They use temperature-controlled packaging to keep the vaccine cold as it’s transported from the hospital out to medical practices.

Wherever societal benefits from drones can be realized, it is up to all of us to help the public understand these benefits and connect with them, but the public has to believe us when we say safety and security risks have been addressed.

The BVLOS ARC will help by documenting the benefits of drones to society. But don’t wait for the FAA to issue the rule. Industry can take the lead by encouraging public acceptance now. 

On that note, next week is National Drone Safety Awareness Week. It runs from September 13-19, and it’s a good chance to go into your communities to talk about drone safety and highlight the benefits of drones. You can find more information and resources about National Drone Safety Awareness Week from the FAA’s website.

Also, next week – September 14-15, we are co-hosting Episode 4 of the FAA’s Annual UAS Symposium. Episode 4 will focus on operational advancements, international developments, and BVLOS operations. You can find information on our website about the Symposium as well.

In closing, I’ll reiterate something I’ve said many times. Safety is a journey, not a destination. We must always keep safety at the forefront of our efforts on drones. Given the rapid advancements that are happening in this field, it’s especially important that safety always remain the top priority.

This way, the innovation we’re seeing – like the swarming drones at Georgia Tech or vaccine delivery in North Carolina – will be something that can grow safely, gain public acceptance, and deliver value for the American people and the world.

Thanks everyone, I hope you have a terrific Expo.